AusRAIL, Market Sectors

‘Back to basics’ for NSW Gov transport planning

The New South Wales Government’s latest design of the North West Rail Link (NWRL) could leave many trains running on the NWRL with nowhere to go.

In this 2-part Special Report, Sandy Thomas* examines the NSW Government’s latest design of the NWRL and argues that the government’s repeated tendency to rush in and &quotdo the engineering&quot has blighted attempts to extend and improve Sydney’s passenger rail network over the last 10 to 15 years.

At its most extreme, this led to the almost “instant” development of the concept for the ill-fated inner “core” of a Sydney metro network from Rozelle to Central station. This, we have since been told, involved a back-of-the-envelope “cut and paste” combination of two earlier concepts in Infrastructure Australia (IA’s) waiting room, just before the &quotSir Humpreys&quot involved presented their brand new idea to IA as the then NSW Government’s considered submission – and then persuaded the then-premier to publicly announce it all without even being able to give him any idea of the costs.

(And never mind the fact that no matter how much this brilliant idea was instantly loved by the property developer lobbies, it would have occupied key sections of all of the CBD corridors previously reserved for the heavy rail CityRail network, thereby ruling out forever a well thought through, viable and previously “fully committed and fully funded” plan for a step-change 30%-plus&nbsp increase in that network’s capacity.)

Similar myopia and hype have surrounded a series of other ill-fated schemes over the last few years, from the North West Metro of 2008 (dreamt up by the same group of Sir Humphreys) to the “City Relief Line” of 2010, a project which was sold as a congestion-buster but would have been mathematically and physically incapable of providing substantive capacity relief. (Never mind the facts. The pollies of the day fell for it hook, line and sinker.)

NWRL &quotflavour of the month&quot
Fortunately, there is far more substance than this in the latest flavour of the month passenger rail concept in Sydney: the long-promised 23km NWRL from Epping to Rouse Hill, serving a population of some 360,000 residents today and 485,000 by 2021 and connecting them not only with existing employment areas such as Norwest, North Sydney and the CBD but also with rapidly developing new employment and education precincts, including Macquarie Park.

And there’s been a real flurry of activity since the O’Farrell government took power, with a rash of design, financial and cost planning tenders being advertised by the Department of Transport (“Transport NSW”) in recent weeks.

Devil is in the detail
But it’s this flurry that gives rise to the greatest concerns – because there are warning signs, in the details, that the mistakes of the past may be about to be repeated.&nbsp

And it’s not just the documents that flesh out the details. The new transport minister, Gladys Berejiklian, has appointed one of the Sir Humpreys of the past, the “very, very talented” Rodd Staples – not only the former head of the Sydney Metro authority and fresh from the $500m debacle of the Rozelle-Central Metro, but also a long-term and forceful advocate of metros over heavy rail for long-distance northwestern Sydney commuting – to run the whole show.

The NWRL’s roots trace back to the 1980s and early 1990s, when concepts were developed for a combination of new lines simultaneously serving the northwestern and southwestern development areas (including Badgerys Creek airport!) and the essential need for increased capacity in the inner CityRail network.

The much-maligned “anti public transport” Carr government firmly and publicly committed itself to this new combination of lines in 2005.

But since then, its supposedly much more public transport friendly successors, advised by the very same Sir Humpreys referred to above and egged on by the Dr No forces of Treasury, have never seriously tackled the task. In later years, on the same advice, they actively undermined and abandoned it.

To date, only two fragments of the plan have been implemented: the gradual quadruplication of sections of the East Hills line and the new Epping-Chatswood line.

Other components, including the “Clearways” addition of two extra tracks on the Illawarra line and the quadruplication of the North Shore line between Chatswood and St Leonards, have been discarded without even the decency of public announcements, while the most critical element of all, a new cross-CBD, cross-harbour line between St Leonards and Redfern, is now studiously ignored by Liberal and Labor governments alike.

Questioning the NWRL’s design elements
In a nutshell, in combination with constraints imposed by NWRL design elements that are now apparently locked in by the NWRL tenders’ terms of reference, this means almost all the trains from the new NWRL will, quite literally, have nowhere to go.

Along with any new Epping-Chatswood train services catering for the forecast rapid growth in demand from the Central Coast, they will have to stop and turn back once they reach Chatswood, disgorging their passengers well short of North Sydney and the CBD and leaving them to squeeze onto a probably reduced number of already crowded trains from the North Shore suburbs.

Yet there are no provisions in the published lists of future tenders for this situation to be independently scrutinised at all, let alone for any corrective action to be taken.

Once again, “doing the engineering first” has swamped any real thinking about how the public transport services for northwestern Sydney and Sydney as a whole -bus and on-demand services as well as rail- ought best to operate, or, as a subset of that, any train plan options for how CityRail’s services ought best to run, not just in the short term but over the longer haul.

These operational requirements ought to dictate the NWRL design. Instead, the design will now quite likely dictate the services – and without a second harbour crossing, they could well be very much poorer than the politicians and the public have been led to believe.

Consider, as an example, the design of the NWRL at Epping, where the broadly east-west combination of the underground NWRL and the underground Epping-Chatswood line will cross under the broadly north-south Northern Line between Hornsby and Strathfield.

In all of the publicly released documentation for the NWRL up to 2007 there was to have been a surface junction between these lines, between Cheltenham, north of Epping, and the existing dives from the Northern Line into the Epping-Chatswood line.

This was to permit viable operation of the NWRL prior to the completion of the second harbour crossing, with some trains being able to travel to the CBD via Strathfield, and would also have facilitated effective operational responses to service disruptions and improved fire and life safety.

In 2007, however, this concept was unilaterally abandoned and replaced by several kilometres more of continuous tunnelling, without any abilities to send trains via Strathfield. The publicly released documents at the time focused entirely on engineering factors behind the decision there was not a single mention of any rail operational studies.

This 2007 concept has now been “locked in” in the tender documentation released by Transport NSW. Other aspects of the NWRL design concept, including the possibilities of two additional stations, are expressly flagged as potential areas for changes – but not this one.

And this is despite the facts that in August 2010 the now head of Transport NSW’s NWRL team, Rodd Staples, drafted a submission to IA with train plans restoring the originally envisaged connection, and that just prior to the March state election he drafted a submission by the director-general of Transport NSW, subsequently leaked to the media, advising the previous government that without this connection only two NWRL peak services per hour would be able to travel to the CBD, because of congestion south of Chatswood.

I am not arguing here for or against this particular connection in the longer term. Indeed, there are good public transport and rail operational reasons for arguing against any splitting of NWRL services at Epping, with some travelling via Strathfield and some via Chatswood.

However, in the “short term” – meaning until the now unmentionable second rail harbour crossing is completed – there may be no real choice. At the very least this matter ought to be seriously reconsidered.

To read Part-2 of this special report see next week’s Rail Express.

*Sandy Thomas was a core team member of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Independent Public Transport Inquiry. He runs Catalyst Communications, a consultancy specialising in strategies and submissions on public and private infrastructure and services.